WHERE THE TEST SCORES ARE: Sailing in search of the world's smartest kids!


Part 2 in this series

Part 3—The Atlantic reaches Estonia: Way back when, in 1926, Yeats famously "sail[ed] to Byzantium." The world's leading authority explains the project as follows:
"Sailing to Byzantium" is Yeats' definitive statement about the agony of old age and the imaginative and spiritual work required to remain a vital individual even when the heart is "fastened to a dying animal" (the body). Yeats's solution is to leave the country of the young and travel to Byzantium, where the sages in the city's famous gold mosaics could become the "singing-masters" of his soul.
"This is no country for old men," Yeats said in his famous first line. A few years back, the poem turned into a movie.

In the years which followed 2001, American and European journalists set about sailing to Finland. They were seeking the kingdom of the young, the realm of "the smartest kids in the world," as Amanda Ripley put it in a somewhat propagandistic, widely praised book which failed to mention exactly half of our international testing data.

Presumably, this journalism was driven by largely good motives. Ostensibly, news orgs hoped to discover the methods which had given Finland its newly-famous world-class schools.

The notion that Finland had cracked some public school code began with a set of test scores. As we noted yesterday, LynNell Hancock told this history in her report for Smithsonian Magazine in September 2011. We'll quote that passage again:
HANCOCK (9/11): The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide.
International interest in Finland's schools began in 2001, when those first PISA test results were released. As the past decade unfolded, the standard report about Finland's schools became so familiar and standardized that it virtually wrote itself.

Alas! As is often the case in such matters, thumbs were sometimes placed on scales to increase the sense of Finland's greatness. To cite one example, Hancock began with an anecdote about the way one Finnish teacher had skillfully intervened to save a struggling immigrant kid.

Because Finland has authorized little immigration—because this fact has helped the small, middle-class nation produce impressive average scores—a misleading impression may perhaps have been conveyed by that opening passage. That said, Ripley did something similar in her widely-praised 2013 book—and she failed to mention half our international scores, an important point which we'll explore as our series winds on.

For whatever reason, American journalists have always loved the notion of miracle cures in the public schools. In the 1950s and 1960s, the tale of the heroic inner-city teacher became a standard in Hollywood movies and in a set of influential books. To this day, journalists sometimes fall in love with the idea that some particular teaching method (phonics, or maybe Direct Instruction) might transform American schools.

Journalists also seem to like the search for miracle nations. In Ripley's widely-praised book, she started with the Finnish schools, then moved on to schools in Korea and Poland. And this past June, an American writer sailed off to Estonia.

The report, by Sarah Butrymowicz, was written for The Hechinger Report. It was also published by The Atlantic.

Headlines included, here's the way the report began in The Atlantic.
By now, these reports roll off the assembly line, which doesn't necessarily mean that they're "wrong:"
BUTRYMOWICZ (6/23/16): Is Estonia the New Finland?

With a focus on equity, the northern European country has quietly joined the ranks of the global education elite.

TARTU, Estonia—Most educators and policymakers can rattle off a list of international educational powerhouses: Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Finland.

But there’s an overlooked member of the list: Estonia. Even as educators from around the world flock to Finland to discover its magic formula, Estonia, just a two-hour ferry ride away, has not aroused the same degree of interest.

That could change if the country remains on its upward trajectory. In 2012, Estonia’s 15-year-olds ranked 11th in math and reading and sixth in science out of the 65 countries that participated in an international test that compares educational systems from around the world (called the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA).

In addition to beating out western nations such as France and Germany and essentially tying Finland in math and science, Estonia also had the smallest number of weak performers in all of Europe, about 10 percent in math and reading and 5 percent in science.
Butrymowicz wanted to know if Estonia might be, or might turn out to be, "the new Finland."

Quite correctly, she noted the way education writers "flock to Finland to discover its magic formula." Citing scores from that one international test program (the PISA), she suggested that these writers might consider Estonia too.

Could Estonia possibly be "the new Finland?" Possibly to her credit, Butrymowicz spent a good deal of time seeking explanations for Estonia's good test scores. In a cynical vein, we'll say this:

As with Finland, so with Estonia. There's never a shortage of public officials willing to explain good test scores in a way which reflects favorably on themselves and on their alleged innovations.

That said, could Estonia be another Finland? In that opening passage, Butrymowicz notes the way Estonian students outscored their counterparts in some large European nations.

One other comparison was sure to come. Here it is, sharing space with one of the great understatements:
BUTRYMOWICZ (continuing directly): Those numbers differ markedly from how the United States is performing, which continues to be stuck in the middle of the pack in all three subjects. More than a quarter of U.S. students were low-performers in math. But few people are asking what meaningful lessons we can draw from Estonia’s success. In fact, many U.S. researchers and educators argue it’s misleading and unhelpful to compare the United States to any top performing country because of demographic and cultural differences.

While there is less income inequality in Estonia than in the United States—and, with 1.3 million people, the country is significantly smaller—the Baltic nation also has its share of cultural diversity.
Estonian kids outscored their counterparts in the U.S. Admittedly, though, the Baltic nation is "significantly smaller!"

We'd call that one of the great understatements. Below, you see estimated total populations of the three nations in question:
Finland: 5.5 million
Estonia: 1.3 million
United States: 324.4 million
Estonia is extremely small. That doesn't mean we can't learn things from observing its schools. It does suggest the hint of "true belief" which often seems to be floating around the familiar reports of these repetitive trips.

For our money, a similar hint may be floating about in Butrymowicz's prebuttal of the idea that Estonian schools may face fewer demographic challenges than those in some much larger nations. How much "cultural diversity" does exist in that extremely small land? We'd say Butrymowicz may have her thumb on the scale a small bit as she continues that passage.

Make no mistake! Finland and Estonia did outscore the United States on the 2012 PISA. That said, results may differ if we examine results from the TIMSS and the PIRLS, the other major international testing program, the one which tends to get disappeared in articles (and books) of this type.

For ourselves, we have nothing bad to say about the schools of Finland and Estonia. That said, Finland and Estonia are very small corners of Europe.

Journalists seem to love to sail (or fly) to these distant ports. As Butrymowicz notes, journalists have been flying to Finland for more than a dozen years now.

The Finland station can make a nice trip! That said, have you ever seen what international test scores look like in the public schools of Massachusetts, a somewhat larger corner of North America?

The correct answer is no, you never have! Behind that fact lies a generation of puzzling education reports. A cynic might say that this repetitive work has almost resembled the tiniest bit of a scam.

Tomorrow: Please come to Boston


  1. No Country for Old Men is a 2005 novel by American author Cormac McCarthy.

    1. The lead characters were not based on Al and Tipper Gore, but Tommy Lee Jones was in the movie.

  2. The reason Finland and Estonia perform well is not hard to figure out, except that ideology gets in the way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWzjn0N9g4g

    1. What a well made, clever parody. Too bad it's in the service of racism.

      That parody wrongly implies that racial differences in average IQ are due to genetic differences. That's not so, and it's not what "The Bell Curve" says. There's every reason to believe that much or all of the difference in IQ is caused by differences in culture.

  3. I'd like to suggest a recent policy brief, written by Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers and myself, about this topic:


    "To summarize: The U.S. is faced with a combination of seemingly high education expense, but noncompetitive compensation for its teachers, average to large class sizes, and a high rate of child poverty. Again, it’s hard to conceive how such a combination would render the U.S. comparable in raw test scores to low-poverty nations like Korea or Finland, or small, segregated, homogeneous enclaves like Singapore or Shanghai."

    Mark Weber

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